CM4199A: Honours Project in Chemistry

Finally. The poster presentation day has come and gone and with that, it officially marks the conclusion of CM4199A: Honours Project in Chemistry. After 2 semesters of lab work, I find myself liberated, yet lost, as I patiently wait for the next adventure to swing by.


Instead of delving into the details of my experience doing a final year project, I decided to take on a slightly different approach and in here, I will try to provide some advice to juniors who might feel somewhat overwhelmed by the prospect of doing research work. I think I might be in a position to provide some advice as I somehow managed to score an A+ for my final year project with many strokes of luck and good fortune. I am not sure when exactly did my aim change from getting a good grade to getting published but I am happy that it did because it means that my research work is good, novel and publishable. I may not be in the position to judge the honours project but I think I have the right to share my thoughts on it. I think a final year project is a great hands-on experience, it distinguishes learning in the university from junior colleges/ polytechnics/ secondary schools because you really get to plan, innovate and contribute to the scientific community. It’s definitely not as scary as some people make it sound to be.

There are four main parts to the final year project with the Department of Chemistry, NUS and they are 1) research, 2) oral presentation (~January), 3) thesis (~early April) and 4) poster presentation (~mid April). You will get two examiners, likely from the same domain of work but not necessary. Together with your supervisor, they will be the one who will grade you. Honestly, I still don’t quite know how the grade percentage works out because it’s rather confusing. Rumour has it that poster presentation accounts for most of the grades given by the 2 examiners. It is certain that these 3 people will grade you relative to other students that they are examining. A word of caution here: instead of trying all means to outperform your compatriots, it is better to try to get obsessed over your own work and try to sound passionate and confident when you sell your ideas.

1) Research

1. Choosing a supervisor and project work: go with your interests and don’t choose because it’s rumoured to be easy. Nothing is easy. Should try to read some review articles regarding that research area to see whether it still appeals to you in spite of all the scientific jargons. You’ll definitely have to read a lot, a lot of scientific journals.

2. Working in the lab: working in the lab is similar to working in an office (except with flexible hours) so importantly, get a sense of the lab politics and try not to get too involved. Similar to working in an office, it is important to get a good rapport with your colleagues, the PhD students. They can help you in many, many ways. As mentioned earlier, lab hours are flexible and what this means is that you have to plan an appropriate rhythm to do your lab work. Some people are more nocturnal and prefer to work in the later hours of the day while others, like myself, prefer to come to work early. Try to plan such that you don’t lose too much time, e.g. do some other experiments/ prepare for the next experiments while waiting for your 8 h reaction to happen. Personally, I plan what I am going to do in the week down to every hour on Sunday evenings. Importantly, get into a suitable rhythm. Do not overwork yourself and try your best not to come back on the precious weekends. There will be group meetings in which you have to update your supervisor about your research progress. Report failures and suggest possible solutions to maximise these sessions.

3. Dealing with failures: That is probably the hardest part in the final year project journey. You’ll fail many times. The feeling is terrible and frustrating when you spend your entire day doing an experiment and the experiment just fails for unknown reasons. What is worse is failing the experiment when you’re repeating it (to obtain the error bar). Why on earth did it work the first time round and fail now? What did I do differently/ wrongly? It is tough to deal with failures, I’m still learning, but a way to do so is to not get emotionally attached to your own work. Understand that research is part of your life but not everything. Drink a beer, watch a movie and try again tomorrow.

2. Oral Presentation

1. Preparing for it: the Oral Presentation will be the first occasion (out of two) where you’ll come face-to-face with your 2 examiners. It’s a 20 minutes long presentation followed by a 10 minutes Q & A session. It is important to prepare early and keep rehearsing. As undergraduates, we don’t usually present on our own for 20 minutes so it might be a first for most people (including myself). Try to keep it simple and refrain from the technical jargons. You’ll have to give a quick literature review (the motivation for doing this piece of work), your overall plan and what you have done so far. Personally, I feel it is quite important to give a good literature review to introduce your area of work to people who might not know too much about it. The details can be more brief.

2. Presenting: it will be in a small tutorial room and your examiners will sit on the chairs and face the projector screen and you’ll talk for most of the time. Don’t get too intimidated (I know it is hard). Presenting is easy once you get rid of the initial nerves. The tougher part is the Q & A. This is where you’ve to sound enthusiastic and knowledgeable about your work.They will ask difficult questions until the point that you can’t answer. Try to be polite and acknowledge their well-intended suggestions and do not even attempt to smoke them.

3. Getting over it: some people have tough examiners who may say mean things about their work. You may feel indignant, after all, you spent hours and hours in the lab and yet the examiners may not acknowledge your efforts. Try to get over it and get obsessed with your work again and try to impress them on the second attempt (poster presentation). After all, your work is, at best, only half-done by January.

3. Thesis

1. Writing it: the people at Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences always moan and complain about how difficult it is to write theses. For science students, however, a thesis is half-written and half-illustrated. It is very important to have visually stunning graphics and diagrams that make your work look rather professional. Refer to relevant scientific journals related to your work for examples. As for the writing, the focus really should be in the abstract, introduction and conclusion. Make a good case why your work is important and novel. There are two possible formats: thesis or scientific paper. Your mentor/ supervisor will advise your accordingly. If you happen to choose scientific paper like I did, you’ll have to pick a journal format to follow (likely the journal that the lab wants to publish in). Start writing the thesis early even though your results might not be complete yet.

2. Proof-reading it: I have a habit of proof-reading my writing roughly a week after I’m done with my 1st draft. Usually, I tend to think that my writing is fantastic for the first few days after I’m done with the 1st draft. Roughly a week after, I will be more critical of my writing and find faults with it. Get someone from the lab to read it as well. He/ she will spot mistakes, sometimes rather glaring, in your prized work.

4. Poster Presentation

1. Preparing: For Chemistry students, poster presentation comes after thesis submission so it means that you’ll have obtained all your results and consolidated them before making the poster. Similar to the thesis, the poster has to be visually stunning. There are plenty of websites advising people on how to make posters so it will be good to refer to them. Generally, keep the diagrams and words big, use bold appropriately and don’t write too much on your poster. Prepare a 10 minute presentation but be prepared that your examiners might interrupt you and ask more or they might just jump the gun and pose questions to you directly. Keep rehearsing. It is best to get someone from the lab to look through for gross mistakes too.

2. Printing: Poster needs to be printed! Some places, e.g. the YIH printing place, take more than a day so be mindful. I printed mine at West Coast Plaza which was almost instantaneous. I heard that the NUH Medical Center 4th level also prints quickly too.

3. Presenting: The atmosphere on the poster presentation day is odd, something many of us are not accustomed with. You will see friends whom you have not seen in a long time and amidst the catching up, you have to be constantly mindful when your examiner appears by your poster. I actually forgot how one of my examiners looks like but I knew it was her when she stared at my poster longer than what a passer-by would. Quickly, you have to convert from your colloquial talk to serious presentation. Sometimes, it gets quite noisy when someone beside you is also presenting to his/ her examiner at the same time. As always, try to sound passionate and confident about your work. This is supposed to be a mini academic conference so your examiners will ask you intellectual questions to know more about your work. They will interrupt you and ask you for more information about your work. You need know what is unique about your work, the design of your methodology, how every method in your project works (and the alternatives available) etc. The examiners will come any time they want so it is a rather painful experience of waiting when people around you are done with their presentations. Most importantly, relax, stay calm and be proud of what you have achieved in 2 semesters.


16 thoughts on “CM4199A: Honours Project in Chemistry

  1. Chanel says:

    Hi there.
    I have some queries about FYP for chemistry at NUS.
    I am currently in my second year and am thinking if you could provide some advice.
    Do you mind sharing your email?
    Many thanks!

      • Chanel says:

        Hello! Sorry for the super late reply!
        How do I know which Profs are willing to accept students to join them?
        How much time do you typically spend in the lab each week? (Wondering how best I should plan my schedule)
        Does the main research/lab work usually take up 2 semesters or is it highly advisable to get all results by the first semester?
        Thanks for reading and helping out!

      • Hi, you will need to approach the professors and ask them about their projects for the coming year. Check out their profile pages on NUS to get a feel of what they are doing before approaching them.

        Yes lab work takes up 2 semesters, it is impossible to get all results by the first semester unless you are very, very, very lucky. I spent a lot of time in the lab, at least ~30 hours a week. I think that is the norm unless you are doing analytical chemistry projects.

  2. Vexedgirl96 says:

    Hi! I got offered into both NTU CBC And NUS Science and am considering which should I choose. May I ask you about how is life in NUS Chemistry like? I heard the bell curve game in NUS is much tougher than NTU, is it true that NUS life is tough? Also, is it hard to get a 2nd lower class honours and above in NUS Chem? I understand that they lowered the CAP For obtaining a 3rd class honours in NUS Science but the CAP For 2nd lower and above remains at 3.5. Do you see majority of ur coursemate eligible for a 2nd lower and above honours in Chem?
    I came from a neughbourhood JC, am afraid I’m not able to cope with the stress in NUS..

    • Hi! I can’t make a fair comparison between NTU CBC and NUS Science because I have only attended one of them..NUS chemistry, just like any other majors in NUS, is very competitive. What is good about NUS is that you get to pick your modules so in that sense, you can make life very difficult for yourself or you can choose an easier life, it’s up to you! Bell curve can be really steep for some modules (e.g. science of music I heard) but usually the bell curve is not so steep. I think >75% of people get 2nd lower and above in chemistry.

      Why do you want to do chemistry in the university? Chemistry in the university is really different from JC, I highly reccomend you to browse through a couple of chemistry textbooks used in the university to see if you really want to do that..Some of my peers don’t cope as well mainly because they are not ready to “unlearn” the things that we learnt in JC and “re-learn” chemistry in the university..

  3. disturbedchemfyp says:

    Hi, I am currently in my final year of NUS and I am doing a FYP in Chemistry. This post has been very useful and reassuring with its generous advice and I was hoping that I can ask some questions based on issues that I am currently experiencing: How did you juggle the modules-fyp workload? How did you manage to overcome any emotional turmoil that you experienced during fyp? How did you manage the inter-personal relationships in lab?

    Thank you for your time!:)

    • Hi there,

      thanks for dropping by! That’s a very funny username by the way XD I will try to answer your questions to the best of my ability and I hope that my answers will be helpful to you.

      1) It took me some time to juggle the balance between modules and fyp, it’s normal to struggle with that in the beginning. I think the best way to strike a balance is to be organized. For me, I planned my week ahead every Sunday evening and in my week’s plan, I allocated time for both experiments and modules. It is important to manage time properly and estimate the time needed for revision/ assignment and experiments well. The better you do that, the less stressed you will be.

      2) It is normal to feel sad and disappointed when the experiments fail (the main cause for emotional turmoil during FYP). I think the attitude is very important, at some point I realized that the failure of experiments is part and parcel of research and I shouldn’t take the failures too personally. A PhD student in my lab once advised me, “Don’t get emotionally attached to your work.” When experiments fail, have a beer or watch a movie in the evening and try again the next day. Importantly, if something fails too many times and it still doesn’t work no matter how many times you try to troubleshoot, don’t keep hitting yourself against that wall. Try to read what other people have done in this field and be very open to new methods.

      3) I think that since you are spending so much time in the lab, it is better if you enjoy and look forward to going to the lab. I will recommend making friends with the people in the lab (go for meals/ drinks together sometimes) and forming a support network for yourself. But don’t get sucked into lab politics.

      I hope my advice is useful and if you need other advice, feel free to write to me! Cheers.

  4. disturbedchemfyp says:

    Haha, it is because my current state of mind does not think of fyp kindly. I am the only girl in the lab and my PI intimidates me. (Did some wrong things so I understand why my PI does not have a good impression of me) It is hard for me to be closer to the people in lab as I am not a very outgoing girl in front of guys.

    Nevertheless, I like my project but I dislike the pressure associated with it. Hopefully this passes and I will learn to manage myself better. Thanks for your kind advice! 🙂

    • haha don’t worry too much about it, maybe bring some food from home (always a good ice-breaker) and attempt some small talk 🙂 People in the lab can make/ break your fyp experience. All the best!

  5. disturbedchemfyp says:

    Hi Wendy, thank you for your kind replies. I do not have much progress in my FYP and I am worried that they will fail me. Also, OP is this week and I do not know my examiners. I am slowly becoming more disturbed and stressed up hahaha. (also PI and me still not on very good terms sigh) Do you have any advice for me?

    P.S. I might really change my username to moredisturbedchemfyp next time hahaha

  6. Hi disturbedchemfyp, I am sorry to hear that your project has not made much progress. Do not let it bother you too much – the examiners will not fail you because you didn’t do as much as you set out to do. What your examiners do want to know is whether you have a good idea of where your project is going. Tell them what you want to achieve in the next 3-4 months. Do make sure your goals are realistic though. I am very sure it will be a very enriching experience for you. 🙂

  7. XJ says:

    Hi, I’m currently in my third yr sem 2 of studies, same major! Can I ask when is it a good time to start emailing professors about their projects? Do we just email them saying we would like to know more about their projects after looking through the NUS website or..? And is it possible to share the area of your Chemistry FYP and your Prof’s name! Thank you in advance cos I have litte clue on FYP stuff 🙂

    • Hi there, it is a good time now to e-mail to find out more. However, I heard that starting from 2014, professors are not supposed to “choose” students before July. Even so, I think it is good to e-mail and find out more about the lab’s research interests and think about which area you want to focus in. My area was inorganic chemistry in Dr Ang Wee Han’s lab. Hope this helps!:)

  8. inadilemma says:

    Hi! I just completed my A levels last year and recently accepted NUS science.. intending to major in Chemistry but I still have some doubts about my choice, mainly because I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to cope uni chem 😦 I was initially quite bad for chem in JC, but I believe it was because I did not put in effort. I made significant improvements in J2 because I worked harder but in the end, I only managed to achieve a B for A levels… Well, I legit screwed up my paper 2 and 3 due to exam stress and kinda expected a B but then again, I can’t solely blame my stress as the reason why I didn’t do well? I was thinking maybe I’m not suited for chemistry.. and I should just take stats/maths instead because I’m stronger in that subject. However, I feel I have a stronger passion for chemistry as compared to maths and I would love to do research work in the future.. Do you have any advice? Like based on your experience in NUS chemistry or if you have friends who faced the same problems with me and managed to overcome those problems? Thanks in advance!

    • Hi there, thanks for dropping by my blog. My advice to you is that Chemistry taught in the university is very different from the Chemistry in JC. It is best for you to borrow university level Chemistry notes from seniors and see if you like it. Alternatively, you can just google “MO theory”, “spectroscopy” or “undergraduate organic reactions” and see if you would want to learn that.

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